What is group therapy?
Group therapy, which is facilitated by one or more psychotherapists, involves groups of five to fifteen patients, meeting for one or two hours at a time. Frequency of group therapy depends on the setting, since group therapy is often part of inpatient and residential treatment. Some people attend other forms of treatment, such as family-based therapy and individual therapy, while others only attend group therapy. (1)
There are many different types of group therapy that fall under this category, many of which target a specific problem or focus on building a specific skill. (1)
How does group therapy differ from a support group?
Many people mistake group therapy for a support group or vice versa, but they differ in several important ways. Most importantly, group therapy is facilitated by a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, whereas support groups are run by peers.
While support groups can be helpful for people recovering from eating disorders, they are not a replacement for formal eating disorder treatment, which can help address disordered eating symptoms, maladaptive behaviors and coping mechanisms, emotional regulation, impulse control, and beyond. As such, support groups may be a great way to supplement professional eating disorder treatment or a place to continue receiving support after you’ve completed treatment.
What does group therapy for eating disorders involve?
At Within, we offer many different types of group therapy, such as a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) group and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) group. Experts in each modality run these specific groups, which means that art therapists run art therapy groups and psychodrama therapists run psychodrama therapy groups. Here is an overview of the group therapy modalities we use at Within Health:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy group: Patients learn the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to replace maladaptive behaviors with adaptive ones.
- Dialectical behavior therapy group: Patients learn a number of skills, including mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness, all of which can help reduce or eliminate disordered eating symptoms and behaviors.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy group: Patients learn to accept situations and experiences as well as improve psychological flexibility while also being motivated to engage in change related to their values.
- Psychodrama group: Group members re-enact past experiences, acting them out with each other in the safety of the group environment. This form of therapy can also help people to solve problems or conflicts by acting them out in real-time.
- Cognitive processing therapy group: In this goal-driven group therapy, which is similar to CBT, patients who have experienced trauma begin to understand how their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affect one another. They also identify unhelpful thought patterns that could be triggering eating disorder symptoms and urges.
- Process group: Patients explore their social skills and communication styles in a nonjudgmental and empathetic environment, where they can gain a sense of belonging.
- Experiential groups: Patients are able to explore their emotions, thoughts, and experiences through expressive activities, such as art therapy, movement therapy, and psychodrama.
- Milestone group: Patients have the opportunity to celebrate the process and growth they’ve achieved during treatment.
- Breakout groups: These are specialty groups that tailor to those who may need an inclusive and accessible space. Examples may include group therapy for individuals in the LGBTQ+ community, trauma groups, co-occurring substance misuse groups, and grief and loss groups.
At Within, all of our patients attend group therapy on days that they attend our virtual programming. Sometimes group therapy sessions include a group meal, although not all of them do. Although some other treatment programs may run larger groups, we tend to keep group sizes small. We find that smaller groups help keep our patients more accountable and can help encourage sharing and honesty.
Benefits of group therapy for eating disorders
Attending group therapy for an eating disorder has many benefits that individual therapy may not offer, including: (1,2)
- Community and support network
- Help with solving problems or challenges
- Exposure to diverse ideas and people
- Feeling accepted and celebrated
- Instill hope
- Knowledge sharing
- Social skills improvement
- Personal insight
This is by no means a comprehensive list. Each patient who attends group therapy for an eating disorder may experience different benefits.
How Effective is Group Therapy?
Group therapy is an effective treatment for eating disorders, such as bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder. In a meta-analysis comparing the outcomes of group psychotherapy to other types of eating disorder treatment modalities, researchers found that group psychotherapy was far more effective than no treatment (people who were on a wait list) and about as effective as other treatments like individual psychotherapy. (3)
A literature review on group therapy for adolescents with eating disorders found that group therapy was especially helpful in the weight restoration process in underweight eating disorder patients. Additionally, multifamily group therapy improved outcomes for those with anorexia while cognitive behavioral therapy groups were effective for individuals with bulimia. (4)
However, more research is needed to evaluate other group therapy modalities for eating disorders.
Group Therapy as a Part of a Comprehensive Treatment Plan
Although some eating disorder patients may attend outpatient group therapy as their primary form of treatment, others may attend a program that integrates many different treatment modalities into an individual’s treatment plan. Utilizing several different therapeutic approaches provides patients with a comprehensive treatment experience that addresses a variety of challenges and unique needs.
Group therapy is often combined with the following:
- Various types of individual therapy, such as CBT or interpersonal psychotherapy
- Family therapy, such as family-based treatment (FBT)
- Nutritional counseling or planning
- Medical care
- Meal support from a care partner
- Support groups
At Within, we prioritize creating and fostering a therapeutic milieu that makes patients feel supported throughout treatment. We recognize how isolating eating disorders often are, and our goal is to provide integrated and comprehensive virtual care that offers true community and connection.